When Nothing Personal first came out in 1964—just months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the assassination of President Kennedy—it was meant by its authors, the photographer Richard Avedon and the writer James Baldwin, as a blow to American myths and lies which, in their view, concealed a wasteland of loneliness and despair. They wanted to portray a nation in a state of spiritual crisis, pointing the finger at culprits and exposing the ugly reality that lurked behind the shiny veneer of the American Dream. Yet, one takes a look at Avedon’s black and white portraits now and sees no trace of that original intent. Not only do these beautiful images give an extraordinary testimony of a turbulent era of American history, their greatness resides in the fact that they put forward an American exceptionalism of sorts.
Though focusing on celebrities and political personalities, Nothing Personal features portraits of individuals or groups that supposedly represent the America of the 1960s in its entirety. Often people on the opposite sides of the political (and moral) spectrum are deliberately juxtaposed, as if battling impulses. Towards the middle of the volume, for instance, George Lincoln Rockwell, the then Commander of the American Nazi Party, is pictured with a group of swastika-wearing uniformed party members hailing him. This image is put side by side with a photograph of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg standing naked and hairy. The pairing points to the irresolvable contradictions inherent to the American spirit.
All of the characters caught by Avedon’s camera are either shown in the forced reenactment of their persona or surprised in a state of deep moral and physical exhaustion. Avedon went consciously against the grain of what most books of the same kind were doing at the time, as well as against what was considered the mission of documentary photography in general. His portraits don’t possess the objectiveness and gravitas of Walker Evans’s in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, nor do they have the snapshot-like spontaneity of Robert Frank’s in The Americans. Quite the contrary, they are unabashedly expressionistic, most of them consisting of frontal close-ups against a white background.
In particular, Monroe’s portrait is an extraordinary case in point. Avedon recounts the shooting circumstances in the PBS documentary Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone.” Avedon’s portrait precisely captures this helplessness. The shallow focus and soft lighting direct the eye of the viewer toward her absent expression, her half-open mouth and off-screen blank stare. But it does so with such delicacy that one cannot but experience a sudden rush of sympathy looking at the Marilyn whom we—with the immodesty that hindsight gives, to be sure—will take as the “real” one.
Avedon’s intrusive, unabashedly subjective approach was considered quite controversial at the time of publication. Theater critic Robert Brustein, in an infamous review that excoriated the book, deemed Avedon an outrage exploiter, “giving the suburban clubwoman a titillating peek into the obscene and ugly faces of the mad, the dispossessed, and the great and near great.” And yet, the air of grotesquerie which was so denigrated from the liberal pulpit of the New York Review of Books has all vanished. The pores, frowns, wrinkles are now seen as the physical markings of extraordinarily complex personalities, larger-than-life characters.
Indeed, something that should disturb the censorious critic is how Avedon’s camera mythologizes all his subjects—magnifying virtue and vice, dignity and bigotry all equally; imbuing even the most despicable with monumental aura. As portrayed in Avedon’s photos, villains, too, are part of the tragic yet grand American drama. Take the portraits of Major Claude Eatherly, pilot at Hiroshima, and the segregationist judge Leander Perez as examples. Both characters are endowed with an epic stature, sins and shortcomings notwithstanding. Eatherly is represented with his left hand sitting about his temple, as if shielding his watery eyes from sunlight. His brow is furrowed, while his expression is quietly sad and fatalistic. We are looking at an accomplice of one of America’s worst crimes, and yet we identify with his plight. On the other hand, Perez is portrayed with a fat cigar in his mouth and a disgusted grimace on his face. Looking at his photograph, one feels not as if he were looking at an actual human in the flesh; but rather at a character out of a novel by William Faulkner, at wickedness incarnate. Avedon’s portraits magnify his subjects’ traits, both admirable and despicable.
As in Avedon’s other photobooks—most notably In the American West—Nothing Personal presents a romanticized version of America as a nation, albeit not a sugarcoated one. As any fiction, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part. But the portraits are so excellent one feels well inclined to fall prey to Avedon’s mythmaking.